Todd Rundgren – the Golden Period vs. Stevie Wonder

While Stevie Wonder gathered justified acclaim and fame for his “golden period” collection of LPs from 1971 to 1976 (“Music Of My Mind”, “Talking Book”, “Innervisions”, “Fulfilingness’ First Finale” and “Songs In The Key Of Life”), a fellow American working a few hundred miles away, primarily in a loft studio in New York, went through his own “golden period” that was far more prolific, and in some ways far more varied.
Todd Rundgren, born in Philadelphia in 1948, had a minor hit with his first band The Nazz (a BritPop-influenced band), then, after The Nazz imploded, he hid himself away and worked on honing his skills on guitar, piano and other instruments. He made an early solo LP in 1970, “Runt”, which yielded a minor radio hit in “We Gotta Get You A Woman” then another solo LP, “Runt – The Ballad of Todd Rundgren” in 1971. Along the way, he acquired a manager, Albert Grossman, who also happened to own his own record company, Bearsville Records. So Todd became one of a small number of artists on Bearsville, most of them managed by Grossman. This represented a huge advantage; when you manager owned your record company, the company was unlikely to reject your recordings. This would come in useful, as we shall see later.
In 1972 Rundgren, initially working on his own and later with a studio band, released a double LP, “Something/Anything?”. This comprised 4 sides of wide-ranging music, showing influences from British pop, soul music,music hall and rock. Todd played all of the instruments on many of the tunes. The LP yielded two US hit singles, “I Saw The Light”, and “Hello It’s Me”, but the album had several other potential hit singles on it. As a hint to what was about to happen, the LP clocked in at 90 minutes – very long even for a double LP.
Todd Rundgren had come of age as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who acted as his own recording engineer and producer. He seemed to be able to write and play anything he could think of. He was now working with a small collection of New York musicians at the time; Mark “Moogy” Klingman, Ralph Shuckett, John Siegler, Hunt and Tony Sales, John Siomos, and Kevin Ellman.
By this time Todd had started a parallel career as a record producer. He produced the debut LP by the New York Dolls, and Grossman boasted that he was going to make him the highest-paid producer in the world. In 1974 Rundgren would produce the second LP from Daryl Hall and Joan Oates, “War Babies”. The production monies would soon become useful…
In late 1973, mostly recording in his loft studio (which bore the name Secret Sound), Todd’s next LP, “A Wizard a True Star” appeared. It was a single LP, but was an incredible 56 minutes in length, and in practical terms equated to a commercial disaster after “Something/Anything?”. There were no obvious hit singles on the album, some of the tunes were only 90 seconds long, and half of the second side was a medley of Todd’s cover versions of his favorite soul songs. Many of the songs ran into each other with no gaps. The overall effect was musically interesting, but the record company executives probably ended up banging their heads on the table.
Rundgren kept his head down and carried on working at a ludicrous pace in Secret Sound. His next LP, “Todd”, appeared in early 1974. It was a double LP this time, once again full of songs showing a wide range of influences, including Todd’s cover version of a Gilbert and Sullivan song (“The Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song”). However, Todd was still making it as difficult as possible for the record company and DJs to play his music – many of the tunes again ran into each other, and there was no obvious hit single, although the LP was stuffed full of great songs, especially the ballads “The Last Ride” and “Don’t You Ever Learn”.
By this time, Todd’s collaboration roster had settled on Kevin Ellman (drums), John Siegler (bass), Moogy Klingman and Ralph Shuckett on keyboards, and Jean-Yves (M. Frog) Labat on synthesizers. The band soon became known as Utopia, and began to back Todd in live concerts.
The Utopia band was no ordinary looking or sounding band. Klingman and Shuckett’s keyboards comprised electric pianos, clavinets, and a new instrument, the RMI keyboard computer, which was, for a while, the first truly polyphonic synthesizer, beating the better-known polysynths from Moog, Oberheim and Sequential Circuits by several years.
The combination of the different keyboards, heavily treated using effects, and the space-age garb of the band members, with Rundgren himself up front with multi-colored dyed hair, made Utopia look more like Sun Ra than an early 1970s rock band, and the sound was different – clear and crystalline, almost other-worldly.
Todd had now branched out to have two parallel recording careers in two distinctively different musical zones, in addition to his “producer for hire” side gig.
In late 1974, a new LP appeared under the title of “Todd Rundgren’s Utopia”. The single LP was another CD-length musical package of 59 minutes of music. There was just one tune on Side 1 that could have been a hit single (but wasn’t) named “Freedom Fighters”; the rest of the tunes on Side 1 were all at least 10 minutes in length, with the single track of side 2, “The Ikon”, running for 30 minutes. If the record company hadn’t already realized that Todd didn’t care about whether he had a hit single ever again, that LP should have confirmed it.
The Utopia music was complex thematic rock, but rooted in pop, not jazz like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a band that was attracting a lot of attention at the time for its fusion of jazz and rock approaches. The Utopia book of tunes was dominated by multi-section long form tunes, with occasional melodic vocal sections from Rundgren.
Rundgren was also beginning to tackle big subjects in his lyrics as he moved heavily into ingesting psychedelic drugs. He began reading occult and sci-fi works.
After a few months, Jean-Yves Labat left Utopia, and was replaced by Roger Powell, a synthesizer pioneer who had left ARP and become a Moog expert. Powell, who also occasionally played trumpet, and his large bank of Moog synth equipment soon became an integral part of the band’s live presence.
At the same tine, Todd went back into the studio and in 1975 yet another Todd Rundgren LP emerged. “Initiation” was another single LP.
No it wasn’t.
At 68 minutes in length, “Initiation” was totally unique at the time – a CD length musical work in the vinyl age. The first side, nearly 33 minutes long, comprised Rundgren in a band setting. The entire second side of the LP comprised a single 35 minute long tune, “A Treatise On Cosmic Fire”, the title being taken from the 1930s occult book by Alice Bailey. Rundgren played almost all of the instruments on side 2 himself, with considerable help on synthesizer programming from Roger Powell.
The LP was so long that in order to be able to master the LP for vinyl, Rundgren had to speed the master tape for the second side up by 5%. Mastering the LP required the bass levels on the music to be reduced almost to transistor radio levels. The LP always sounded terrible in analog on vinyl, it was not until it was re-mastered to CD in the late 1980s that we finally got to hear it how it sounded when it was recorded.
The title track was a “kitchen sink” production, with no expense spared. The band for the recording session comprised Bernard Purdie and Rick Marotta on drums, John Siegler on bass, Todd himself on keyboards, Lee Pastora on percussion, and David Sanborn playing a heavily flanged and treated sax solo. Roger Powell made an appearance for a synth solo. Todd sings around material and ideas also found in Alice Bailey’s books, tossing off guitar solos and layered vocals left right and center. The result is a supercharged pop band playing space music. Nothing like it had been recorded before, and it still sounds astoundingly different over 40 years later.
Rundgren continued to write and record new material, and play it in a live setting. In mid-1975, his Utopia band concert in New York was recorded, and the LP “Utopia- Another Live” duly appeared in late 1975.
Live albums are usually a variant of a “greatest hits” collection played live. Not so with the “Utopia – Another Live” LP. It comprised an eclectic collection of material. The first side was all new tunes – three long-form compositions (“Another Life”, “The Wheel”, and “The Seven Rays”, the last named song exploring a concept from Alice Bailey’s occult writings). The second side opened with an instrumental composition (“Mr. Triscuits”, written by Roger Powell) which segued into a cover of “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story”. The rest of the side comprised previously released Rundgren tunes (“Heavy Metal Kids” and “Just One Victory”), and a cover of the Move song “Do Ya”. And…if you hadn’t guessed by now, not a sniff of a hit single on the LP, which therefore failed to get above #66 on the LP charts.
The expense of running a 6-piece live band comprising session musicians and one of the world’s synthesizer pioneers, and the constant and frequent release of LPs that, no matter how good, were difficult to explain and market, and contained no hit singles, soon led to a rationalization. At the end of 1975, Ralph Schuckett and Moogy Klingman left Utopia. Roger Powell took over as the sole keyboards player, and the slimmed-down four-piece Utopia continued as Todd’s primary project, although he continued to release solo LPs frequently.
“Utopia – Live” marked the end of the breakneck period of music creation. In just under 4 years, Rundgren had released 6 LPs, but given that 2 of them were doubles, and at least 2 others were effectively double LPs squeezed into a single LP format, he actually released 10+ LPs’ worth of music. That is more than double Stevie Wonder’s recorded output over the same period. Todd’s output was more uneven, but the highs were every bit as high as Wonder’s. They just did not get the same attention in the music world.


The world of Scandinavian female percussionists

I went on a little musical journey this week over Thanksgiving.
As I often do, I explore the world of music by seeking out the work of musicians who have played with my favorite musicians. This is particularly useful for drummers and percusionists, who often move around.
This week, I began by journey by digging into the work of Marilyn Mazur. Born in the USA to Polish-African-American parents, Mazur has lived in Denmark since the age of 5, so she is for all intents and purposes European. She first came to prominence worldwide when she joined the touring band of Miles Davis after playing in the band for his 1984 Sonnings Award-winning concert, where he played a lengthy composition written for him by Palle Mikkelborg, The composition was finally recorded as “Aura” and released in 1989, after Davis had to get an NEA grant to cover recording costs, since his record company at the time refused to pay for the project.
Several years touring with Miles Davis were followed by a lengthy period as the percussionist in the Jan Garbarek Group. This incarnation of the group became the best-known internationally, a beautifully balanced ensemble with Garbarek on reeds, Eberhard Weber on bass, Rainer Bruninghaus on keyboards, and Mazur herself on percussion. All the time, Mazur was recording her own music, via a collection of ensembles that she uses to explore a wide variety of musical forms. Her CD “All The Birds”, culled mostly from live concerts in Scandinavia, is probably the best overview of her musical skills and sesibilities. Collaborators on it include Palle Mikkelborg.
One of the ensenbles that Mazur formed in the late 1990s was Marilyn Mazur’s Percussion Paradise. This occasional group comprised Mazur and whoever she could grab at the time from the ranks of local female percussionists.
Lisbeth Diers is another one of the established Danish percussionists. Adept at both kit drumming and percussion, she has been playing and recording in Scandinavia and Europe for a long time. Here she is holding her own against the great Airto Moreira and Triok Gurtu in 1999 . Here she is at the same festival playing with Mazur and Don Alias. Here she is trying to get gongs and suspended blocks made of ice to sound, well, percussionistic…
Benita Haastrup has been a member of the Mazur ensemble for a number of years. She is a percussionist and music educator, traveling through Scandinavia bringing live music to schools and colleges with her trio DrumDrum. Here is the trio in Copenhagen earlier this year. The trio has released a CD named “Going North”.
Birgit Lokke-Larsen is the fourth member of the ensemble, a percussionist, composer, singer and painter. She has recorded solo CDs “Forbidden Forest”, “Lid Digt”. She formed an occasional duo in 2012 with Jesper Silberg on trumpet and keyboards named Timeland. Like all true percussionists, she will hit anything that might make an interesting sound.
Diers, Haastrup and Lokke also have an occasional side project named Trigong, where they go outdoors and make percussive music using instruments and natural objects.
So here is Percussion Paradise – Mazur, Diers, Lokke and Haastrup, tearing up the Copenhagen Jazzhouse in 2006.
There is a free-wheeling experimental edge to Scandinavian jazz that always results in interesting sounds. Here is Lisbeth Diers playing a small venue with Staffan Svensson in 2012.
There is so much more interesting stuff being created under Mazur’s wing, including Marilyn Mazur’s Shamania, an all-female ensemble, including Lisbeth Diers and the singer Jennifer Cronhokm, with a rotating cast of characters, including dancers. Shamania is true world music, impossible to categorize.
Another Mazur ensemble is Spirit Cave, including Eivind Aarset and Nils Petter Molvaer. .
Here is another live video of Spirit Cave, with a Mazur percussion solo that shows her raw power and chops. She also seems to have brought just about every heavyweight percussion instrument on stage for that concert.
And here is another occasional ensemble, Future Song.
Marilyn Mazur is woven into the DNA of Scandinavian jazz so tightly, and is involved in just about every leading-edge ensemble in the region. Not only that, but her presence has led to an explosion of interest in percussion by women.


Saturday Morning Music #3 – Rambling Syd Rumpo

Once upon a time…there was radio comedy (yes, folks, no visuals, just sound).
In the 1960s in the UK, radio comedy was still the primary comedy medium, although by the end of that decade it would be eclipsed by television.
Radio comedy operated under a lot of guidelines from the BBC, not least of which was the original BBC charter that obliged the BBC to “uphold the morals of the nation”. As far as The Authorities were concerned that meant one thing for sure.
Sex Must Not Be Mentioned.
So…the comedy writers, being the inventive people that they were, proceeded to punch through the prohibition by the use of innuendo. Radio comedy in that era was full of innuendo.
The comedy show “Round The Horne” was a prime example. “Round The Horne” was an anarchic melting pot of British radio comedy, with most of the famous names of UK comedy making appearances. The show was fronted by Kenneth Horne, who essentially operated as the straight man, attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to keep the rest of the cast and crew in line.
The show was not so much riddled with innuendo as it was powered by innuendo. It even had two stock characters (Julian and Sandy) who were flagrantly and obviously gay, this in an era where homosexuality was still a felony in the UK.
Like most radio comedy shows, the show had its collection of stock characters, many of them played by Kenneth Williams. The gifted Williams was, personality-wise, a classic tortured comedy genius, privately homosexual, but deeply conflicted about it. He would ultimately commit suicide due to depression. However, at this point in his life he was at the peak of his powers, a gifted mimic, with a fast acerbic wit that thrived in the seat-of-the-pants environment of “Round The Horne”.
One stock character created for the show that Williams played was Rambling Syd Rumpo.
Rambling Syd was a simple country guy from somewhere in the West Country of England, speaking in a caricature Dorset or Devon accent, who would show up almost every week. He would operate as a music educator, ultimately whipping out his guitar (in reality played by another musician) to sing a ditty, mostly some English traditional song with greatly altered lyrics.
Rambling Syd was a creation of writers Barry Took and Marty Feldman (yes, that Mary Feldman). In the process of creating him, Took and Feldman created an entire new lexicon for him to talk and sing. Words, mostly invented by Feldman, such as “grunge”, “nadgers”, “cordwangle”, “ganderbag”, “grussets” and “splod” were the staple currency of Rambling Syd’s verbal repertoire, as he proceeded to, ahem, re-interpret the traditional English song catalog in his own unique style.
Of course, since this was “Round The Horne”, the entire Rambling Syd slot in the show was an innuendo lover’s feast. The words just sounded naughty, and Kenneth Williams’ intro to the first tune on this Best Of tells you exactly where he was headed.
Trivia thought – this might have been the first time that the word “grunge” was popularized, prior to its appropriation by the Seattle indie rock scene in the 1980s.


Saturday Morning music – 18th November 2017

1. Kane Gang – Motortown
The Kane Gang were a short-lived band that originated in the North East of England in the early 1980s. They started out as an electronic pop trio, but soon morphed into a unique band with a style that was part US blue-eyed soul, English pop, with witty and often acerbic lyrcis. Unfortunately, the band imploded while recording their third LP and that was that.
“Motortown” is an acerbic satire about the Nissan car company’s new car plant that opened in the mid-1980s near Sunderland. At the time Nissan were hailed as saviours of the local economy, which was declining due to coal mine and industry closures. The Kane Gang put the whole hype into perspective with some suitably acerbic commentary.

2. Emerson Lake and Palmer – Fanfare For The Common Man
Keith Emerson was no stranger to re-interpreting the works of classical composers – he had re-arranged Mussorgsky’s “Pictures At An Exhibition” for ELP, generating an entire LP in the process. Having always liked Aaron Copland’s piece, ELP proceeded to re-work it for their 1976 LP “Works”.
They then proceeded to film a promotional movie for the tune in the Olympic Stadium in Montreal in the middle of the Canadian winter. Not sure how impressed the band members really were at being asked to film this video in sub-standard temperatures, all wearing winter coats that made them look like Michelin men.
In the film, Emerson is playing a unique and expensive multi-bank polyphonic synth – the Yamaha GX1 – a leviathan with a ludicrous price tag, owned by a handful of pioneering keyboard players at the time, including Emerson (who ended up with two), Stevie Wonder, John Paul Jones and Rick Wright of Pink Floyd.
Copland actually heard ELP’s version and was not entirely appalled by it…


RIP Tom Petty, who showed leadership by humility

Yesterday we lost yet another musician and artist with the sudden death of Tom Petty.
I will be honest and say that I was never a fan of most of Tom Petty’s music. He had an excellent backing band, but his songwriting to me lacked enough structural interest. he rarely used bridges on his tunes, and had limited harmonic movement in the tunes. Like R.E.M., another highly popular ensemble, most of Petty’s songs went through my head and out of the other side without engaging my brain.
However, it was clear that Petty was an all-round good guy. He gave generously of his time to numerous causes, and did not go way off the rails like some of his contemporaries.
He was also humble enough to pen this mea culpa in Rolling Stone a few years ago about how he ended up using the Confederate flag in his “Southern Accents” tour, and how he subsequently came to realize that it had been a mistake. It is rare for many famous people to admit to error, but Tom was a welcome exception.
Rest in Peace Tom.


How to elaborate on the 12 bar form – Donald Fagen explains “Peg” by Steely Dan

“Peg” is the opening tune on the second side of the 1977 Steely Dan LP “Aja”.
Like a number of Steely Dan songs, it is actually based partially on the 12 bar blues form. However, as with other Steely Dan songs derived from the blues (other examples are “Bodhisattva”, “Chain Lightning” and “Josie”), the chordal structure and voice leading is…different.
As Fagen explains, the idea was to build the verse harmony around a major seventh, not a flat seventh. Also present are additional sections; the introduction, which is derived from the chorus, and a stop/transition, based on jazz bebop harmonies, between then first chorus and the start of the second verse.
Fagen, prompted by Warren Bernhardt, who played piano on several 1990s Steely Dan tours, walks through an explanation of how “Peg” is constructed in two parts.
It is a beautiful explanation of how the underlying harmony of what superficially passes for a 12-bar blues was developed into something altogether more interesting.


Bill Bruford – Feels Good To Me

While working away this weekend in the home office, I found myself listening to Bill Bruford’s LP “Feels Good To Me“.
It is difficult to explain how eye-opening this LP was when I first went out and bought it in early 1979. It is also amazing and gratifying to find out that it still sounds like a damn fine LP nearly 40 years later.
For those of us who were following the UK music scene, Bruford had already shown his willingness to go out on a limb musically more than once. He had quit the drum seat in the band Yes in 1972, when Yes were poised to break out and become a massive band worldwide. At the time the move was greeted with a fair bit of astonishment in the UK, not only because Bruford was leaving Yes, a band seemingly on the rise, but because he was leaving Yes to join…King Crimson, a band whose audience, in contrast to that of Yes, seemed to be shrinking, and whose main newsworthy activity seemed to be the latest item of news about who had just left the band. King Crimson violated most people’s expectations at the time that bands should have a stable enduring line-up. Not only that, but Crimson’s musical approach seemingly changed from LP to LP, confusing listeners and reviewers alike.
At the time that Bruford joined King Crimson, the previous version of the band had essentially ceased to exist, and Robert Fripp had recruited Bruford into a brand new incarnation of Crimson.
The band, with Bruford’s straight man drumming offset by the unique percussion stylings of Scottish percussionist Jamie Muir, was either brave or suicidal depending on your point of view – they opened their first gig in 1972 in Germany with with a 30 minute free improvisation, and played “20th Century Schizoid Man” only as an encore. However, playing with Muir awakened Bruford’s interest in tuned untuned percussion, which he would use to good effect on his own projects.
That version of the band recorded “Larks Tongues In Aspic” in 1973, an album that, for those who bought it, had an impact out of all proportion to its modest sales. “Larks Tongues” was a mixture of jazz, heavy metal, classical music and other forms not even categorizable. (One thing that you will not find in “Larks Tongues”, however, is any trace of the blues). It still sounds unique and fresh to this day.
However, after 1972, King Crimson began to shed members once more, and Fripp disbanded that version of the band in 1974, leaving Bruford to pursue itinerant session and touring gigs, until he teamed up with Eddie Jobson, John Wetton (who had been the bass player and vocalist in Crimson), and guitar player Allan Holdsworth to form the progressive rock band UK. UK released one album to good reviews, but Holdsworth left during their first major tour, and the band fizzled out.
After the UK experiment, Bruford retreated to his home studio, and working with Dave Stewart and Jeff Berlin, wrote the tunes for what would become “Feels Good To Me”. For the LP recording sessions, Bruford showed that he was a man of much more musical reach relative to just about every drummer on the planet. He recruited Stewart to play keyboards, Jeff Berlin to play bass, and persuaded Holdsworth to play guitar (in true Holdsworthian style, he would again leave the band after its first UK tour). He also called on the unique lyrical and vocal approach of the American singer Annette Peacock. Lastly, he asked jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler to play on several tunes.
“Feels Good To Me” covers a lot of stylistic ground, from hard pop through to intricate instrumental tunes, some with odd standard time signatures, led by Bruford’s mallet and tuned percussion playing, through to mini suites. However, what still rises to the surface is Bruford’s innate sense of melodicism. His tune melodies refuse to go in straight lines, but they have a logic and a destination, they just take more time than 8 4/4 bars to get there as they tell a more elaborate story than most instrumental melodies.
“Feels Good To Me” is a long way removed from most drummer LPs, which tend to comprise tunes designed more to showcase technique than musical story telling. Bruford has technique to throw away, but it was always used to support the tunes.
After “Feels Good To Me”, the band recorded “One Of A Kind”, this time without Peacock or Wheeler, but Holdsworth left the band before their next tour, and John Clark became the band’s guitar player. The LP is less accessible than “Feels Good To Me”, mainly because of the lack of the lack of vocals. The band then recorded a third LP “Gradually Going Tornado”, with Jef Berlin trying his hand at singing (verdict: average). They disbanded in 1983, and Bruford would then re-group and launch his project Earthworks, another genre-smashing ensemble.


Allan Holdsworth 1947-2017 – an appreciation

Allan Holdsworth passed away suddenly on April 16th 2017 from heart failure at the age of 70 at his home in Southern California.
He died in relative obscurity, and, by all accounts, in poverty.
The fact that Allan Holdsworth, at the end of his life, was an obscure small cult tells us a lot about the current state of the music business and also the popularity of instrumental music containing improvisational forms. Bluntly, the music form known as jazz is in a bad way in the USA. The problem is not confined to Allan Holdsworth. I have read interviews with other jazz players in the past few years where they explained that they were unable to play live in the USA because they could not get paid any reasonable amount of money for their craft. Europe and Japan are just about the only regions of the world where jazz artists can actually make a living playing live.
The statement that Allan Holdsworth was a guitarist’s guitarist is undoubtedly true, but it is an over-simplification and sells Holdsworth short in many respects. However, it is true that just about every person who has tried to play electric guitar has heard of Allan Holdsworth. In the same way that Jaco Pastorius greatly expanded the vocabulary of the bass guitar in the late 1970s, Allan Holdsworth did the same for the electric guitar in the 1980s. By the end of that decade, he had almost single-handedly expanded the entire notion of what a six string fretted electric instrument cold sound like, both as an accompanying instrument and as a solo instrument.
Holdsworth’s accompaniment and chordal work on guitar was the antithesis of the old phrase “rhythm guitar”. Holdsworth did not sweep the strings, he plucked them, and his chord voicings were often colored, inverted and contained controlled dissonance and open ringing notes. He used large spreads across the fretboard. I have his music instruction book “Searching for the Uncommon Chord”, and I can verify that some of the voicings and fingerings are beyond my ability to play.
Essentially, Holdsworth played accompanying guitar like a keyboards player. Processed through intricate and complex equipment, this resulted in a unique soundscape that has been imitated to a greater or lesser degree by dozens of guitar players.
It was no real surprise that when the SynthAxe appeared in the 1980s, Holdsworth was immediately drawn to it, and he became the musician most indelibly associated with the instrument. The conception of feeding the string information from guitar into keyboard controllers perfectly meshed with his approach to playing guitar. Unfortunately the SynthAxe, like many great innovations, lacked a large enough market to support proper development, and reliability and cost issues blighted greater acceptance. Holdsworth’s own SynthAxes were eventually retired from road use, to be used occasionally in the studio.
Like many skilled practitioners on musical instruments, Allan Holdsworth did not start out playing guitar. He was initially a horn player, and this was immediately obvious when you listened to his solos, which contained pauses and gaps reminiscent of what you hear in blowing instrument solos, where the instrumentalist has to stop playing to take a breath. The attack, the tone, the note selection and his use of a diverse range of scales made him recognizable in no more than two or three notes. Like all great individualists on any instrument, Holdsworth’s solos were instantly recognizable as Holdsworth.
Holdsworth, in his solo playing, also seemed to be totally non-anchored to the blues form and scale patterns that most guitarists start out playing, and often become trapped within. His choice of notes and scales seemed to be derived partly from bebop, but mostly from Somewhere Else.
Holdsworth, as befits a determined individualist, also wrote quirky, often non-standard compositions. He seemed ill at ease with or uninterested in conventional song forms. In the 1980s he experimented briefly with vocal-led music, but soon abandoned having a singer in his band, and for the last 25 years of his life, he toured and recorded with a base trio format, adding a keyboards player occasionally. However, he always used the best musicians available, and there was no shortage of musicians who wanted to play with him. Like Frank Zappa, alumni of Holdsworth bands are to be found embedded in positions of veneration in the music industry all over the place. Holdsowrth’s best composi
tions are, like his solo playing, instantly recognizable, if only because almost nobody else could write tunes like that.
Unfortunately, the characteristics of his playing and compositional ability that made Allan Holdsworth unique also made him uniquely difficult to sell as a musical artist. That difficulty was exascerbated by his demanding and uncompromising personality. Unlike many other gifted instrumentalists, Holdsworth never became a fluent sight-reader, so the parallel career of a session player to pay the bills was not really an option for him. (He would have hated that line of work anyway). He also seemed to have a low boredom threshold, and tended to walk away quickly from any musical project that could not hold his attention. Stints with UK and Bill Bruford in the late 1970s ended quickly, as did an attempt to form a more conventionally-structured rock band (recording sessions for “Road Games” followed by the band I.O.U.).
Holdsworth’s many musical admirers included Steve Vai, Frank Zappa (who would probably have hired Holdsworth to play for him if he had been a sight-reader) and Eddie Van Halen, who assiduously lobbied for Warner Brothers to sign Holdsworth as a solo artist in the early 1980s. Hoever, after recording most of an album, Holdsworth and Warners fell out, and only a single truncated LP, “Road Games”, was released.
After that flirtation with the conventional end of the record industry, Holdsworth’s fate was to shuffle from independent record company to record company, releasing an LP here, a CD there. He moved to Southern California in the 1980s, worked and toured infrequently, and, like most jazz artists, suffered from the general downturn in the music industry, which has seen royalties, once a source of steady income for recording artists, shrink to almost nothing in the last 15 years. In occasional interviews, he came across as frustrated, but unrepentant. At the end of his life, he was scratching a living, and after his death, friends had to set up a GoFundMe for his anticipated funeral expenses. The fact that the appeal was shut down after 72 hours, having raised over $114,000 dollars against a $20,000 target, confirms that Allan Holdsworth still had a lot of friends and admirers.
A more conventional Allan Holdsworth would probably have worn tight trousers in a stadium rock band, played bombastic solos, been a hero to air guitar players…and would have been boring beyond belief. Instead we ended up with 40 years of a unique approach to guitar playing that re-wrote a lot of the vocabulary and expanded, sonically, harmonically and melodically, the entire landscape of what we know as Playing Guitar.
Rest In Peace Allan. We hardly knew ye.


Gregg Allman

Gregg Allman, the remaining half of the Allman brothers, passed away suddenly last week at the age of 69.
In reality, he had been dodging the Grim Reeper for the best part of 10 years, since discovering that he was suffering from liver failure due partly to Hepatitis C. His prodigious prior alcohol ingestion probably had a lot to do with the liver issue also. After a liver transplant and a difficult recovery, Allman had been touring intermittently, in between further bouts of ill-health.
Many people with drug and alcholol abuse problems are essentially self-medicating to address deep trauma. In Gregg Allman’s case, the trauma dated back to 1971 and 1972.
By the Fall of 1971, the Allman Brothers, the band that Gregg and his elder brother Duane had formed in Jacksonville FL in 1969, had matured into one of the great live musical acts. The band, built around the twin guitar playing of Duane and Dickey Betts, with Gregg providing Hammond organ and gritty vocals, with two touch drummers in Butch Trucks and Jai Johnny Johansen, and with Berry Oakley maturing into one of the great bass players, had toured non-stop for over 2 years, sometimes playing 2 sets a night, and had gradually morphed into an ensemble that was beginning to blur the boundaries between blues, rock and jazz.
The band’s first two studio LPs, “Allman Brothers Band” and “Idlewild South”, contained interesting original compositions that bore only a passing relationship to the blues. Tunes like “Dreams” and “Midnight Rider” impressed fellow musicians, but it soon became clear that the Allman Brothers were a far better live band than a studio band. In the studio, they often sounded stilted and tentative. Live, they soon became a pin-sharp band, capable of playing almost anything and interpreting other people’s tunes in a way that made it sound like only they could have written and arranged them.
Although the band’s initial repertoire was rooted in the blues, the cliched 12-bar blues form soon became a minority part of the band’s book of tunes. In addition to their own tunes, based on other musical forms, or modified blues forms, they also had a book of interpretations of old blues-based tunes, again with modifications to the musical forms.
By the time that Tom Dowd captured the band live at the Fillmore East in early 1971, to create one of the great live rock albums, the band was beginning to move into a zone that made them almost unclassifiable. A tune like “Hot ‘Lanta”, finished literally days before the Fillmore dates, illustrates the direction shift. Based on the blues form, the tune cycles through the theme, solos from the guitarists and the drummers, to a very slow melancholic hanging ending quite unlike any blues band’s standard cliche-ridden ending.
Film and audio records of the Fillmore dates and other concerts from the same time show clearly that although Gregg Allman, by virtue of being the band’s singer, looked and sounded like the frontman, this was Duane’s band. Duane directed the band on-stage, and it is his voice making most of the between-song announcements. Duane was constantly moving forward, in his own playing and with the band’s book of tunes.
And then, everything collapsed. On 29th October 1971, Duane Allman was fatally injured in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia. Just over one year later, Berry Oakley would die in remarkably similar circumstances, also as the result of a motorcycle accident.
Suddenly, the Allman Brothers, who were well-positioned to make a major musical impact, were leaderless. Gregg and Dickey Betts became the leaders of the band after Duane’s death, and replaced Duane Allman’s fiery guitar with the jazz-tinged piano of Chuck Leavell. With Betts now a major compositional force, and taking over a lot of the lead vocals, the band rapidly morphed away from jazz-influenced blues and towards country-rock, becoming the de facto leaders of the whole “Southern Rock” movement of the early to mid 1970s. For several years, the band enjoyed massive success with hits like “Ramblin’ Man” and “Jessica”.
Then, slowly, the band fell apart, and it became clear after the fact that Gregg Allman, like many musicians, had been captured by drink and drugs, from which he had difficulty escaping. He testified against a band roadie to avoid jail time for hard drug possession, which effectively broke up the band in 1975.
After that, Allman embarked on a long period of intemittent activity, blighted by substance abuse. There was a short-lived marriage to Cher, which produced an odd LP “Allman and Woman”, a failed attempt at sounding like Ashford and Simpson. There were Allman band tours, and reformations of the Allman Brothers. The band toured in several incarnations for many years, without or without Dickey Betts.
Listening to a tune like “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” 45 years after it was recorded, one is struck by the acuity of the composition and the sheer tightness and pin-sharp playing of the original band, and it is impossible to wonder how great the Allman Brothers could have been as a band without the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley. Sadly, Gregg Allman probably spent a lot of the rest of his life wondering the same thing, and this may be why he died suddenly a week ago, after a difficult life.


Something rather different…

The German jazz organist Barbara Dennerlein, playing a jazz blues on the pipe organ at the Rockefeller Chapel in Chicago in 2009.
And here is another performance as she improvises around Bach’s Toccata and Fugue at Trinity Church, NY.
Another performance on a cathedral pipe organ,
Dennerlein is a true organ pioneer, having a prodigious technique on organ bass pedals, which she utilizes to not only play complex walking bass lines, but also to trigger musical samples.

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